Upcoming Event: Brexit and Aviation, November 15. Full details here.
Barry McMullin (DCU School of Electronic Engineering)
I recently received an invitation from the DCU Brexit Institute to its event to be held today on the subject of Brexit and Aviation. It seems like an important and timely topic, with an excellent line up of expert and well informed speakers. Unfortunately, due to other prior commitments, I was unable to sign up to attend. Nonetheless, it did stimulate me to wonder what the scope of the discussions may be; and whether, in particular, it may venture into the truly challenging conversations that, I believe, we all need to be having about aviation (and much else besides!)…
The conversations I have in mind would go rather far beyond the most immediate headline concerns of aviation licences, approvals, certificates, and specific aerospace projects or collaborations (e.g., UK-Ireland flights will be grounded without post-Brexit deal, Irish Times; Hard Brexit will fail UK aerospace, Flight International; European Aerospace Braces for Hard Brexit, AIN Online). Instead, these more profound conversations would start with the pressing global context of existential threat to our shared living environment: most urgently in the form of rapid, human-caused, climate disruption, but more generally in systemic overshoot of multiple planetary boundaries. It’s not that this context is unknown, hidden, or even seriously contested: but nonetheless we seem to still be sleepwalking in a parallel universe of cognitive dissonance and implicatory denial, where we can “know”, fully, that human society is plunging rapidly into deep ecological crisis, while simultaneously celebrating the joys of ludicrously “cheap” flying visits to Kiev, Kraków, Lisbon or Transylvania, and aspiring to seemingly insatiable growth in our collective aviation appetite.
But is it fair to pick on aviation as a special target for such difficult (and, let’s admit, potentially rather dismal) conversation? Even if we focus on climate specifically, and acknowledge that, of course, aviation does contribute to some extent, it is still surely only a small part of our overall planetary footprint (perhaps only 2-3% of current annual climate pollution). And anyway, surely this is all well under control, and isn’t the aviation industry already leading the way in setting ambitious and robust targets for fully “green and sustainable growth”?
Sadly, of course, it is not as simple as that. In truth, the aviation sector has a number of more or less unique features which mean it really does need to be singled out for special discussion:
- While aviation does make a relatively modest contribution to current global emissions, it is the sector projected to grow the fastest over the next critical few decades; and, as emissions in other sectors decline (perhaps forcibly) the relative contribution of aviation (if its growth is unconstrained) will inevitably loom much larger.
- Aviation is the global sector where high incomes and emissions really converge: that is, air travel is one of the major reasons why the rich have a much greater carbon footprint than the poor. This is profoundly inequitable, and ignoring or downplaying such inequity would inevitably undermine the global solidarity we so badly need if we are to navigate our unfolding climate emergency in any managed way.
- Aviation is almost uniquely difficult to decarbonise.
- While Solar Impulse 2 captured imaginations with its solar powered circumnavigation of the globe, its single seat capacity (one pilot, no passengers) and cruise speed of just 90 kph mean that it is not a serious prototype for carbon-free commercial aviation. It seems that electrification can play at most a tiny role in aviation for the immediately foreseeable future.
- Biofuels have been touted as a potential panacea; but global land use for all purposes is severely constrained, and there are many competing demands for all forms of bioenergy. In particular, many projections of effective climate action now envisage a requirement for achieving so-called “negative emissions” (active removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere), particularly through the (as yet unproven) technique known as “BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage” or BECCS: but, at best, this is generally feasible only when the bioenergy fuels are used in a large, fixed, combustion plant. Prioritising such fuels for BECCS would therefore automatically exclude them from aviation.
- The ICAO CORSIA scheme for addressing aviation emissions has been heavily criticised for its limited scope and reliance on so-called “offsetting”, where (notional) reductions in emissions in some other sector supposedly allow continued expansion of aviation emissions. Given that, for carbon dioxide in particular, total net global emissions must fall to zero rapidly, across all sectors, it is clear that there is a fundamental difficulty with making this arithmetic add up.
- Perhaps the most plausible route to effective aviation decarbonisation is via so-called electrofuels: chemical fuels synthesized using energy derived from some other (low- or zero-carbon) source. However, at best, these would dramatically push up the costs of aviation; and, given the severe challenges in finding sufficient decarbonised energy for more essential societal needs, including desperately needed global development in the decades immediately ahead, it may be difficult to envisage ready availability of such energy supply for aviation also.
And then again, in “good news” (of a sort) our conversation might go on to reflect on the fact that aviation is, after all, not absolutely essential to human health or wellbeing. It is actually perfectly possible to envisage highly fulfilling ways of life that involve a lot less flying: and many people are actively starting to explore this. Recent progress in communications technologies mean that many professional and business activities can now be effectively decoupled from long distance physical travel. And, without abandoning flying completely, the fundamental social inequity of the current model of global aviation could actually be actively moderated — if we can muster the collective will, and collective solidarity, to do so. And perhaps — just perhaps — if Brexit were to have the effect of slowing or even reversing some of the recent headlong growth of aviation in these islands, there may be ways to ensure that this is not the wholly negative outcome that it might at first appear!
In closing, let me wish the participants in the seminar on Brexit and Aviation every success in their discussions and explorations. Managing a creative and constructive response to the challenges of Brexit is a worthy endeavour across all sectors, and is, of course, acutely impactful for those of us living in all parts of the island of Ireland. But I do hope you will still find some time to look beyond Brexit, and even beyond aviation, to view those specific topics in the wider context of our shared global predicament, a context that will necessarily transcend this (relatively) localised upheaval. Regardless of our current political affiliations and divisions, our cultural or ethnic backgrounds, our creeds or genders, this wider context surely suggests ethical demands that must (ultimately) unite us in securing the future of our common home.
Barry McMullin is a professional academic engineer, holding degrees of BE (Electrical Engineering, UCD, 1980), MEngSc (UCD, 1983), and PhD (Computer Science, UCD, 1993). He worked in the energy and manufacturing industries before joining the School of Electronic Engineering of DCU in 1987. He was appointed full Professor at DCU in 2014. He has served in diverse academic roles, including as Executive Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Computing. His research has been primarily in the area of crossdisciplinary complex systems science. He has an extensive track record of scholarly publication and of successful project funding under national and international RD&D programmes. He is a member of Engineers Ireland, an associate member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), and serves on the Engineers Ireland Energy and Environment Committee. He is currently co-PI/PI of three advanced research projects addressing different aspects of deep decarbonisation of energy systems: IE-NETs, Potential for Negative Emissions Technologies in Ireland (EPA), Heterogenous Energy Storage in ParisAligned Scenarios for the Irish Energy System (SEAI) and Society-wide Scenarios for Effective Climate Change Mitigation (EPA). D